Thriller: The Last Cato, by Matilde Asensi

Precious relics, fragments of the True Cross, are being stolen from churches across Europe and Asia. The  body of one of the suspects, covered in cryptic tattoos, is found. The Vatican assembles a team, to track down the thieves and recover that relics.  Ottavia is a Catholic nun who is a renowned paleographer; Farag is a Coptic Egyptian archaeologist;  Kaspar is an officer of the famed Swiss Guard. Painstakingly deciphering The the meaning of the tattoos, the team is astonished to learn that the key to the mystery is embedded in Dante’s Inferno, specifically, Purgatorio.  And they must endure and master the seven grueling challenges faced by Dante himself.

Sounds promising. But this is a novel well conceived but poorly executed. Part of the problem lies in its translation into English from the original Spanish. The translation is awkward and often jarring in its misapplication of words. The levels of Purgatory, for example, are referred to as “cornices”, where “terrace” would have been more appropriate. A large crucifix is described as “grandiose”, instead of “imposing” or “awe-inspiring”.

Another difficulty lies within the seven challenges. They are certainly grueling, so much so that these poor people, facing each within a day or two of the previous, simply could not have withstood more than the initial few. In addition, seven ordeals described in detail, along with their respective Inferno verses, makes for lengthy passages that tend to grow tedious. If this book were a movie, it would have to be produced in sequels.

On the positive side is the character of Ottavia, who is the real protagonist of the story, the seeker who must confront the central truth of her life and the choices she’s made. By comparison, Kaspar and Farag are undeveloped except as types. Also, there are some delightful discoveries embedded in the plot, surprises that heighten interest and imagination.

The Last Cato is not a bad book, just an overlong one. I suspect that it reads much better in Spanish. Author Asensi seems a competent writer who perhaps needs better editing.

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